William Marcus “Marc” Wilson believed he was standing his ground when he fired at a pickup truck he says was trying to run his car off the road as he drove home with his girlfriend one night last month. He had a licensed handgun with him, and he might have assumed that he was covered by Georgia’s “stand your ground” law, which reads, in part, “A person who uses threats or force … in defense of self or others … in defense of a habitation, or … in defense of property other than a habitation, has no duty to retreat and has the right to stand his or her ground and use force … including deadly force.” But Wilson, 21, a college student from Statesboro, Ga., a small city in the southeast part of the state, is Black, and according to his family and attorneys, that has made a big difference in how he has been treated.
Wilson, charged with murder in the death of a teenaged girl who was riding in the truck, has been in jail since June 17. “This is bigger than Marc,” said his aunt SaJuana Williams — meaning it raises the question of whether the principle of “stand your ground” applies to Black men when they are threatened by whites.
Francys Johnson, Wilson’s attorney, recounted last week at a press conference what he alleges happened the night of the shooting. Wilson and his girlfriend were driving home from picking up food at a Taco Bell in Statesboro at 12:30 a.m. on June 14 when a group of white men approached them in a Silverado pickup truck, said Johnson. The group was “hanging out of the window, waving their arms” and yelling racial slurs at the couple and shouting “your lives don’t matter.” The group also allegedly called Wilson a “n*****” and his girlfriend a “n***** lover” before throwing an object that struck Wilson’s car. The pickup truck’s driver then allegedly tried to run Wilson’s much smaller Ford Focus off the road before, according to Johnson, Wilson “defended his life” by using a legally registered firearm to shoot at the truck. A passenger in the truck, 17-year old Haley Hutcheson, was struck and later died from a gunshot wound.
The police report from the incident said Statesboro Police were called just before 1 a.m. on June 14 about a possible drive-by shooting. Investigative records released by the department include accounts from the passengers in the Silverado truck, who say two or three shots were fired before a final bullet entered through the truck’s back window, striking Hutcheson. Members of Wilson’s defense team say that police have given more credibility to the white teenagers’ accounts than Wilson’s. They also claim police have also yet to mention Wilson’s claim of self-defense in public statements about the case.
The judge in the case last Tuesday postponed a preliminary hearing for Wilson because two witnesses for the defense were exposed to COVID-19. The judge also imposed a gag order barring attorneys, investigators or anyone connected to the case from speaking to the media, the day after defense lawyers in the case held a news conference to give Wilson’s side of the story. Johnson’s office declined Yahoo News’ request for comment on why the judge imposed the gag order. A date for the next hearing has not been announced.
During a press conference on June 17, Hutcheson’s parents said their daughter was in the wrong place at the wrong time. “You took a beautiful child from this sister, that child did not deserve to get what she got,” said Robert Baggett, Hutcheson’s grandfather.
“There can be mercy. There can be forgiveness,” the girl’s uncle, Brent Holcombe, said at the same presser. “But justice has to be served.”
Later that day Wilson turned himself in to police. He’s been in jail for nearly a month on charges of felony murder and aggravated assault.
Police also charged 18-year-old Luke Harry Conley, who was in the pickup truck with Hutcheson, with misdemeanor obstruction of a law enforcement officer. Conley told police the shooting was unprovoked, but investigators later found out Conley was seen yelling out of the truck’s window before the shooting.
“It is believed that Conley has involvement in the case,” a supplemental report says. “He was seen yelling out of a window of the victim vehicle just prior to the shooting.” Conley also allegedly encouraged his friends to withhold information, according to Atlanta Black Star. Conley did not respond to Yahoo News’ request for comment.
Supporters of Wilson say his actions would be covered under the state’s Stand Your Ground laws, which allows the use of deadly force to defend themselves based on a “reasonable belief” that such force is necessary to prevent death, bodily injury or a forcible felony. A Change.org petition seeking “Justice for Williams Marcus Wilson” has been signed by more than 90,000 people as of Tuesday afternoon.
Another attorney for Wilson, Mawuli Davis, said he plans to use a “stand your ground” defense. Davis argues that if anyone is guilty in the death of Hutcheson, it should be someone in the truck. “Rarely do we see successful ‘stand your ground’ or self-defense claims when Black people attempt to assert them,” said Davis. “This is a real test of whether the legal system in Georgia can be just for all citizens.”
Rev. James Woodall, president of the Georgia NAACP, said last week during a Zoom press conference that the case appears to be “shaping up to be a public lynching.” He suspects that Wilson’s race — he is the son of a black father and a white mother — explains why he is in jail. “If Black people cannot stand their ground as well, then nobody should be able to,” Woodall said.
There are other instances of “stand your ground” laws being unequally applied. A Black woman, Florida resident Marrissa Alexander, 38, spent six years behind bars or confined to her home after her “stand your ground” defense was rejected. She was convicted of aggravated assault charges in 2012 for firing a warning shot at her husband, who she said had abused her.
In contrast, earlier this year, George Barnhill, the original prosecutor in the case of Ahmaud Arbery, a Black man shot to death by two white men as he jogged past them, pointed to the Georgia “stand your ground law” as one of the reasons he refused to pursue charges against Gregory McMichael, 64, and Travis McMichael, 32. The McMichaels were later arrested and charged with murder and aggravated assault two months after Arbery’s killing, after a new prosecutor was assigned to the case.
“Everything about the scenario is trash,” said Nsé Ufot, CEO of the New Georgia Project, a large-scale civic engagement organization that works with young people of color to transform the politics of the state. “Justice is the Wilson family being reunited and Marc being able to come home, recognizing that until the “stand your ground” laws in Georgia change, this appears to be a scenario where this young man and his defense team should be able to avail themselves of this type of defense.”
“I don’t understand, from all of the facts that have been made available to us and to the public, how ‘stand your ground’ does not apply here,” she said. “It leads us to further interrogate how the court is applying the standard, how the investigators and the cops and the sheriffs are applying a standard, and whether or not Black people, whether or not Black Americans, are entitled to the full protection of the law.”
Wilson’s cousin, Chance Pridgen, who is white, said he believes if he had pulled the trigger, he would not have been prosecuted. “‘Stand your ground’ is implemented across the country many times, but I do strongly believe that it was not implemented or extended to my cousin because of him being a biracial young man,” Pridgen said in a video chat interview with Yahoo News. “I feel pretty strong that had that been me, the prosecution would have never happened.”
This entire ordeal has made Pridgen more aware of injustice happening in the country and he feels like everything is happening for a reason. “I can honestly say it has opened my eyes a lot to everything that’s going around in the world today,” he said. “Up until this incident, I can’t say that I’ve ever experienced real racism until I’ve seen some of the stuff that’s been said about my cousin. … I believe God’s using this family to show the world that we can all love one another. We can all be united. We don’t have to be divided or hate one another, just because of the way we look.”
Williams, Wilson’s aunt, added that their family, which includes Black, white and Hispanic members, will show the world that “love is going to conquer all because we are a loving people because we are a family.”
She spoke to Marc last Thursday and added that he’s in good spirits and staying grounded in his faith.
“When I talked to him yesterday, he even said to me, ‘Auntie, at first I was wondering, why is this happening?,’” she recalled. “And then I thought about it. He said, ‘God is in this. And God has put me in the situation that I’m going to be a better person once it’s over.’ … He knows that we love him. We’re behind him.”
Williams is thankful that Wilson is alive to tell his truth.
“The good thing about our case [is that] my nephew is living,” Williams said. “He’s able to tell his story.”
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